My Family Fit Three Generations Under One Roof (Somewhat) Peacefully, And Yours Can Too
What I've learned from living with my lovable in-laws—plus tips from experts on building happy three-generation households.
Illustration: Deshi Deng
My mother-in-law, Georgii, loves to spoil her grandchildren. Until recently, I’ve always cherished this aspect of her personality. The indulgences she offers our three sons aren’t excessive: home-baked treats or some extra screen time. She gives our kids a reprieve from the stricter limits that my wife, Lynn, and I impose upon them, which was part of what made visiting Oma so special. Then she moved in.
It’s been five years since we consolidated our two households into one, with Lynn bringing her parents—Georgii and my father-in-law, John—into our home. It turns out we were on trend; according to Statistics Canada, from 2011 to 2016, the number of three-generation homes grew by 38 per cent.
In theory, the move was a win-win-win. Georgii and John would live far more affordably than at any seniors’ residence. Lynn and I, both with busy careers, would get odd-hours care for the kids. And the boys would always have loving family members around.
It hasn’t always been as easy as that, though. We’ve had disagreements about grocery bills, parking spots, what constitutes a clean kitchen and which brand of saltine is best. And, with Oma in charge, the boys’ after-school snacks became a smorgasbord of chicken fingers, chocolate bars and Timbits. I voiced my displeasure early on, but Georgii countered that they came home starving—which I interpreted as a subtle dig at the school lunches I made for them.
All intergenerational homes, I’m sure, involve such conflicts—but by keeping a few simple principles in mind, harmony can still prevail.
Avoid old patterns
“The most common problem in three-generation households is a parent who, once their own aging parents move back in, slips back into mommy-daddy-child role,” says Susan Newman, author of Under One Roof Again. “The parent starts acting like their 10-year-old self and their mother starts barking orders at them again.”
To encourage equality, Newman says that the middle set will need to gently but firmly stand up for themselves. When parents criticize or command, be direct and explain how it affects you. “You can say, ‘Hold it. I’m an adult. I can handle this.’ Or, ‘It feels as if you are judging me right now, and it doesn’t feel good.’”
To minimize such encounters, Newman says holding family meetings can be effective: everyone comes to the table as residents under one roof, which helps establish a different tone. The household can use the meetings to divvy up chores, organize meal routines and air concerns before they turn into grievances. “People aren’t mind-readers,” says Newman.
When differences can’t be sorted out easily, well, a family is not a democracy. “Always bear in mind whose house it is,” says Newman. Typically it belongs to the middle generation, and they should have the final word; the older generation already had their turn ruling the home. “If there’s a difference of opinion, you can kindly say to your parents, ‘I understand how you feel, but it’s our house and this is the way we prefer to run the household.’”
Protect personal time
Three-generation households are an antidote to social isolation, but sometimes they create the opposite problem: privacy can be hard to come by.
Most homes were built for two-generation nuclear families, so adding a third puts a squeeze on everyone’s personal space and their alone time. Suddenly, the one-bedroom-per-child standard many families are used to might no longer be feasible. Bathroom backlogs become the new normal. And unlike traditional nuclear households, moments in the week when you have the house to yourself become a rare luxury.
The impact of this squeeze is typically felt most acutely by the middle generation. “They are often at the highest point in their careers, and the kids have busy schedules,” says therapist Jen Milligan, based in Peterborough, Ont. “Even without adding grandparents into the mix, they’re already exhausted and don’t have time for themselves.”
Milligan says it’s essential parents and grandparents state when and where they want quiet time to decompress in the home, and let others know that’s their do-not-disturb hour. While one adult is having “me time,” the others need to pick up the slack. Doing so can help ward off resentment and keep everyone on good terms.
“In order to be our best selves for others, we must take care of ourselves,” says Milligan.
Don’t overextend yourself
Just as the household’s members need to set boundaries around their time, they also need them regarding their role.
According to Milligan, problems can crop up when the oldest generation begins to need more support. “You want to be a good son or daughter to your aging parents, but you’re not their nurse,” cautions Milligan. When the generations live apart, limits are easier to establish, but it’s more difficult to set them when living together.
The solution is to talk about home care before you actually need it, and agree on a plan for the kind of assistance you’ll want and where you’ll get it. The topic can be hard to broach—many people find it easier to talk about their death than their decline—but Milligan encourages being proactive. “I think we need to be honest about our love for our parents but also that we still need to be able to live our lives, just as they did.”
On the flip side, the middle generation can tend to lean too heavily upon the grandparents. Milligan suggests thinking of grandparents as volunteer helpers: they get to offer support in ways they enjoy. If they like assisting with homework or driving the after-school-sports-practice shuttle, they are welcome to do those things, but they shouldn’t be conscripted into them. And it’s unfair if they are denied the joys of grandparenting—including the occasional spoiling.
This is how I made my peace with Georgii’s after-school snack-meals. It’s not the healthy food that Lynn or I would feed them, but that’s because we’re the parents. (Also, I’ll admit that I turned out fine despite the many thousands of afternoon pizza pockets I ate as a kid.) The boys look forward to seeing what surprises their Oma has for them when they get home. To give their appetites time to recover, we simply moved our family’s suppertime a half hour later.
In the end, those treats are an important part of how Georgii expresses her love for her grandsons, and I wouldn’t want to stifle that.
Next, find out how to communicate effectively with your elders.